Giving the New National Security Strategy the Attention It Deserves
December 21, 2017
Washington's steadily more partisan environment leads to more and more polarized analysis and commentary. This is especially true when President Trump speaks on any topic in a way that focuses on his core constituency and/or repeats the main theme in his campaign. His opponents and critics feel compelled to focus on the most controversial things he says, rather than his actions. His supporters tend to focus on supporting his campaign themes for the same reasons.
This has led many to focus on his short and highly political speech introducing the new National Security Strategy (NSS) that the White House issued on December 18, 2017, rather than examine the actual content of the 55-page document. The substance of the new NSS deserves careful attention, particularly by America's allies and strategic partners, and by those who deal with everything the President says or issues in terms of knee jerk criticism.
It is a document that President Trump reviewed and altered in some depth and that does represent his views—rather than a bland bureaucratic compromise. At the same time, the full text offers far more continuity than change. It expands on the classic themes of U.S. strategy—rather than rejects them. While it calls for changes in the way the U.S. conducts its diplomacy and national security efforts, it also commits the U.S. to playing its traditional role in leading the free world.
"America First" Means International Leadership and Action, Not Isolation
One of the most critical aspects of the document is its definition of "America First"—one which clearly rejects the isolationism of those who first used the term, and rejects the denial of America's overseas role that some around the President advocated before he appointed his present national security team. It directly addresses both America's need to remain committed overseas and deal with competition from Russia and China.
The introduction makes it clear that "America first" does not mean isolationism:
An America that is safe, prosperous, and free at home is an America with the strength, confidence, and will to lead abroad. It is an America that can preserve peace, uphold liberty, and create enduring advantages for the American people. Putting America first is the duty of our government and the foundation for U.S. leadership in the world.
A strong America is in the vital interests of not only the American people, but also those around the world who want to partner with the United States in pursuit of shared interests, values, and aspirations...
This National Security Strategy puts America first.
...Our founding principles have made the United States among the greatest forces for good in the world. But we are also aware that we must protect and build upon our accomplishments, always conscious of the fact that the interests of the American people constitute our true North Star.
America’s achievements and standing in the world were neither inevitable nor accidental. On many occasions, Americans have had to compete with adversarial forces to preserve and advance our security, prosperity, and the principles we hold dear.
The United States consolidated these military victories with political and economic triumphs built on market economies and fair trade, democratic principles, and shared security partnerships.
The centerpiece of the new NSS is its assessment of a rising level of U.S. competition with outside states. While the NSS criticizes past Administrations for being too passive and optimistic, its actual judgments closely parallel the evolving judgments of the Bush and Obama Administrations. They also do not understate the challenges raised by China and Russia, ignore the need for U.S. action overseas, or emphasize the military dimension over the civil one:
The United States will respond to the growing political, economic, and military competitions we face around the world.
...China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence. At the same time, the dictatorships of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran are determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people. Transnational threat groups, from jihadist terrorists to transnational criminal organizations, are actively trying to harm Americans.
While these challenges differ in nature and magnitude, they are fundamentally contests between those who value human dignity and freedom and those who oppress, individuals and enforce uniformity.
These competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades—policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.
Rival actors use propaganda and other means to try to discredit democracy. They advance anti-Western views and spread false information to create divisions among ourselves, our allies, and our partners.
In addition, jihadist terrorists such as ISIS and al-Qa’ida continue to spread a barbaric ideology that calls for the violent destruction of governments and innocents they consider to be apostates. These jihadist terrorists attempt to force those under their influence to submit to Sharia law.
America’s military remains the strongest in the world. However, U.S. advantages are shrinking as rival states modernize and build up their conventional and nuclear forces. Many actors can now field a broad arsenal of advanced missiles, including variants that can reach the American homeland. Access to technology empowers and emboldens otherwise weak states. North Korea—a country that starves its own people—has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons that could threaten our homeland. In addition, many actors have become skilled at operating below the threshold of military conflict—challenging the United States, our allies, and our partners with hostile actions cloaked in deniability. Our task is to ensure that American military superiority endures, and in combination with other elements of national power, is ready to protect Americans against sophisticated challenges to national security.
The contest over information accelerates these political, economic, and military competitions. Data, like energy, will shape U.S. economic prosperity and our future strategic position in the world. The ability to harness the power of data is fundamental to the continuing growth of America’s economy, prevailing against hostile ideologies, and building and deploying the most effective military in the world.
We learned the difficult lesson that when America does not lead, malign actors fill the void to the disadvantage of the United States. When America does lead, however, from a position of strength and confidence and in accordance with our interests and values, all benefit.
Competition does not always mean hostility, nor does it inevitably lead to conflict although none should doubt our commitment to defend our interests. An America that successfully competes is the best way to prevent conflict. Just as American weakness invites challenge, American strength and confidence deters war and promotes peace.
Four Pillars: Defining "An America First National Security Strategy" in International Terms
The introduction also makes it clear that the new National Security Strategy centers around four pillars. The first two pillars add new sets of largely domestic goals to the more traditional international and military ones. The remaining two focus on more traditional international and military roles, but pick up new domestic priorities as well:
America possesses unmatched political, economic, military, and technological advantages. But to maintain these advantages, build upon our strengths, and unleash the talents of the American people, we must protect four vital national interests in this competitive world.First, our fundamental responsibility is to protect the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life. We will strengthen control of our borders and reform our immigration system. We will protect our critical infrastructure and go after malicious cyber actors. A layered missile defense system will defend our homeland from missile attack. And we will pursue threats to their source, so that jihadist terrorists are stopped before they ever reach our borders.
Second, we will promote American prosperity. We will rejuvenate the American economy for the benefit of American workers and companies. We will insist upon fair and reciprocal economic relationships to address trade imbalances. The United States must preserve its lead in research and technology and protect our economy from competitors who unfairly acquire our intellectual property. And we will embrace America’s energy dominance because unleashing abundant energy resources stimulates our economy.
Third, we will preserve peace through strength by rebuilding our military so that it remains preeminent, deters our adversaries, and if necessary, is able to fight and win. We will compete to ensure that regions of the world are not dominated by one power and to strengthen America’s capabilities—including in space and cyberspace —and revitalize others that have been neglected. Allies and partners magnify our power, and we expect them to shoulder a fair share of the burden of responsibility to protect against common threats.
Fourth, we will advance American influence because a world that supports American interests and reflects our values makes America more secure and prosperous. We will compete and lead in multilateral organizations so that American interests and principles are protected. America’s commitment to liberty, democracy, and the rule of law serves as an inspiration for those living under tyranny. We can play a catalytic role in promoting private-sector-led economic growth, helping aspiring partners become future trading and security partners. And we will remain a generous nation, even as we expect others to share responsibility.
The first two pillars clearly tie domestic strength to military security and make it clear that making “America first" is critically dependent on allies and strategic partners. The next two pillars make these points even more clearly, and the fourth also provides a new commitment to playing a key role in international organizations—both those that affect national security directly, like NATO, and the wide range of civil organizations that some on the far-right disregard or see as hostile.
This wording—and wording of the rest of the document—may not be the same as in the documents issued by past Administrations, but it clearly addresses the need for the U.S. to keep playing the key elements of its current role in the world, as do the relevant portions of the rest of the document. The new National Security Strategy does present a conservative view of America's role, but it is also a very international one, and one that clearly ties the President's domestic priorities to American action and leadership overseas.
The limited parts that draw directly on the President's rhetoric are also balanced by statements and analysis that closely match the strategy and policies of other Administrations. If one looks at the entire text -- rather than examines on the most controversial statements out of context -- it is clear that the NSS reflects the fact that President Trump may swing from position to position at times in his tweets and short statements, but has so far ended up closer to the center in shaping his national security positions than many of his critics take fully into account.
Pillar I: "Protect the American People, the Homeland, and the American Way of Life" Means the U.S. Must "Pursue Threats to Their Source"
The President's commitment to preserving American leadership and international action is particularly clear in the wording that the new National Security strategy uses in explaining the First Pillar, and explaining what it means to "protect the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life."
This national security strategy begins with the determination to protect the American people, the American way of life, and American interests... Americans have long recognized the benefits of an interconnected world… Openness also imposes costs, since adversaries exploit our free and democratic system.
North Korea seeks the capability to kill millions of Americans with nuclear weapons. Iran supports terrorist groups and openly calls for our destruction. Jihadist terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Al Qaeda are determined to attack the United States and radicalize Americans with their hateful ideology. States and non-state actors undermine social order through drug and human trafficking networks, which they use to commit violent crimes and kill thousands of American each year.
Adversaries target sources of American strength, including our democratic system and our economy. They steal and exploit our intellectual property and personal data, interfere in our political processes, target our aviation and maritime sectors, and hold our critical infrastructure at risk. All of these actions threaten the foundations of the American way of life...
We must prevent nuclear, chemical, radiological, and biological attacks, block terrorists from reaching our homeland, reduce drug and human trafficking, and protect our critical infrastructure. We must also deter, disrupt, and defeat potential threats before they reach the United States...
We must also take steps to respond quickly to meet the needs of the American people in the event of natural disaster or attack on our homeland. We must build a culture of preparedness and resilience across our governmental functions...
The strategy goes on to address more controversial themes like protecting America's borders—although it does not place any emphasis on a "wall." But, it does not define this in terms of immigrants or give priority to fighting terrorists and extremists. It stresses the need to "pursue threats to their source," and focuses on far more serious threats, and ones that are truly international:
The danger from hostile state and non-state actors who are trying to acquire nuclear, chemical, radiological, and biological WMD is increasing...
As missiles grow in numbers, types, and effectiveness, to include those with greater ranges, they are the most likely means for states like North Korea to use a nuclear weapon against the United States. North Korea is also pursuing chemical and biological weapons which could also be delivered by missile.
...Biological incidents have the potential to cause catastrophic loss of life. Biological threats to the U.S. homeland—whether as the result of deliberate attack, accident, or a natural outbreak—are growing and require actions to address this problem at its source... There is no perfect defense against the range of threats facing our homeland. That is why America must, alongside allies and partners, stay on the offensive against those violent non-state groups that target the United States and its allies.
The primary transnational threats Americans face are from jihadist terrorists and transnational criminal organizations. Although their objectives differ, these actors pose some common challenges...
...The United States must devote greater resources to dismantle transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) and their subsidiary networks... Today, cyberspace offers state and non-state actors the ability to wage campaigns against American political, economic, and security interests without ever physically crossing our borders...
Here, it is critical to note that the text of this pillar—like the text of each following major sections of the report—goes into far more detailed subsections, each of which has a list of priority actions. Reading through each sub-section—and particularly through each list of priority actions—is critical to understanding what the new strategy actually is, and its level of continuity and change.
The subsection on "Secure U.S. Borders and Territory,” for example, has a further subsection on "Defend Against Weapons of Mass Destruction" that includes priority actions dealing with missile defense and enhancing counterproliferation measures. It includes a subsection on "Combat Biothreats and Pandemics" that calls for international action in fighting biothreats and cooperation in emergency response.
The section on "Strengthen Border Control and Immigration" does raise many of the President's themes about immigration, but its "Priority Actions" also call for international cooperation. The only mention of the wall is the brief phrase, "we will secure our borders through the construction of a border wall," in a paragraph calling for other actions and for the U.S. to work with "international partners."
The NSS's "America First" approach to this pillar also has a subsection called "Pursue Threats to their Source" that makes it clear that the U.S. will continue to partner in fighting terrorism and extremism overseas, cooperate with allies and partners, and "share responsibility." It calls for more aggressive joint action to "Dismantle Transnational Criminal Organizations," and "Keep America Safe in a Cyber Era." Anyone familiar with existing U.S. programs and policies will find many areas where the new NSS calls for more emphasis and action is far more consistent than many of its critics seem to recognize.
Pillar II: Promote American Prosperity: Recasting the Campaign Language in More Pragmatic Terms
The section on promoting American prosperity picks up on the President's domestic campaign priorities and ties them to national security. However, it too is far more moderate and pragmatic than much of the campaign language and some of the language that the President has used since. It does threaten states that "espouse free trade rhetoric and exploit its benefits, but only adhere selectively to the rules and agreements," but it also says that, "We welcome all economic relationships rooted in fairness, reciprocity, and faithful adherence to the rules. Those who join this pursuit will be our closest economic partners... preserving a fair and reciprocal system will enhance our security and advance peace and prosperity in the world."
The NSS also gives high priority to a theme that few Americans can argue with: maintaining America's "Lead in Research, Technology, Invention, and Innovation." These are critical national priorities, although such a lead will always be relative to and depend on the level of effort in each country. This part of the NSS—like many others—also raises the question of how this effort will be funded and structured, given the increasing budget cuts and constraints that reduce or limit federal support of such activities.
The same is even more true of a call to "Promote and Protect the U.S. National Security Innovation Base." This has been a goal since at least the first Bush Administration. The problem has always been finding actions that will actually do it and providing the necessary resources. The "Priority Actions" sections throughout the report are longer on rhetoric and good intentions than content, but these are particularly weak.
At the same time, there is an odd subsection calling for the U.S. to "embrace energy dominance." The wording is both awkward and silly. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that the U.S. used about 18% of the world's energy use in Quads in 2014, and its projections indicate that the U.S. share will drop steadily over time.
The U.S. is not going to dominate world energy, nor should a future U.S. with some 400 million people try to dominate energy in a world that will have some 8.6 billion other people who have their own rights and needs. There is a clear need to debate the way the U.S. develops its energy resources and takes the lead in clean energy technology and conservation, but this subsection badly needed a midnight rewrite.
Pillar III: Preserve Peace through Strength
The "Preserve Peace through Strength" pillar makes it clear that the President clearly understands America's key security priorities, and understands them in terms of "competition" rather than "war." It uses his wording to reassert some of the most fundamental lessons and themes of U.S. national security that has shaped U.S. security policy since the beginning of World War II and throughout the Cold War:
A central continuity in history is the contest for power. The present time period is no different. Three main sets of challengers – the revisionist powers of China and Russia; the rogue states of Iran and North Korea; and transnational threat organizations, particularly jihadist terrorist groups – are actively competing against the United States and its allies and partners.
Although differing in nature and magnitude, these rivals compete across political, economic, and military arenas, and use technology and information to accelerate these contests, in order to shift regional balances of power in their favor...These are fundamentally political contests between those who favor repressive systems and those who favor free societies.
...Protecting American interests requires that we compete continuously within and across these contests, which are being played out in regions around the world. The outcome of these contests will influence the political, economic, and military strength of the United States and our allies and partners... The United States will seek areas of cooperation with competitors from a position of strength, foremost by ensuring our military power is second to none and fully integrated with our allies and all of our instruments of power.
The new National Security Strategy again breaks new ground in tying domestic progress to military security, and in calling for efforts to renew America's competitive advantage. It also makes some points about the post-Cold War world that clearly do need to be addressed in a National Security Strategy:
...Some conditions are new, and have changed how these competitions are unfolding. We face simultaneous threats from different actors across multiple arenas – all accelerated by technology. The United States must develop new concepts and capabilities to protect our homeland, advance our prosperity, and preserve peace... deterrence today is significantly more complex to achieve than during the Cold War...
The spread of accurate and inexpensive weapons and the use of cyber tools have allowed state and non-state competitors to harm the United States across various domains. Such capabilities contest what was until recently U.S. dominance across the land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace domains.
In addition, adversaries and competitors became adept at operating below the threshold of open military conflict and at the edges of international law...They are patient and content to accrue strategic gains over time – making it harder for the United States and our allies to respond...
China, Russia, and other state and non-state actors recognize that the United States often views the world in binary terms, with states being either “at peace” or “at war,” when it is actually an arena of continuous competition…
The new National Security Strategy does, however, mirror past National Security Strategy documents, and America's vacuous Quadrennial Defense Reviews, in one key respect. The Section on "Renew America's Competitive Advantages" makes some good criticisms of past U.S. policy, and raises an important issue in stating that the U.S. needs be better prepared for unconventional warfare and new strategic threats like cyberwarfare.
It also does raise a critical new U.S. strategic priority when it states that,
...adversaries and competitors became adept at operating below the threshold of open military conflict and at the edges of international law. Repressive, closed states and organizations, although brittle in many ways, are often more agile and faster at integrating economic, military, and especially informational means to achieve their goals. They are unencumbered by truth, by the rules and protections of privacy inherent in democracies, and by the law of armed conflict. They employ sophisticated political, economic, and military campaigns that combine discrete actions. They are patient and content to accrue strategic gains over time—making it harder for the United States and our allies to respond. Such actions are calculated to achieve maximum effect without provoking a direct military response from the United States. And as these incremental gains are realized, over time, a new status quo emerges.
The United States must prepare for this type of competition. China, Russia, and other state and non-state actors recognize that the United States often views the world in binary terms, with states being either “at peace” or “at war,” when it is actually an arena of continuous competition. Our adversaries will not fight us on our terms. We will raise our competitive game to meet that challenge, to protect American interests, and to advance our values.
However, the "Renew Capabilities" subsection is all goals and generalities. The "Renew Capabilities" set of priority actions does not repeat any of the tangible force goals the President raised in his campaign, it sets no key mission or regional priorities, and makes no effort to add the key issues of "how" and at what cost. The "Defense Industrial Base" is the same, and the priority actions in the "Nuclear Forces," "Space," and "Cyberspace" subsections are all broad goals and rhetoric.
The "Intelligence" section calls for improvements in areas like "understanding of the economic priorities of our adversaries," "use the information-rich open source environment," and "fuse analysis of information"-- goals that have existed since the 1960s.
The major section on "Diplomacy and Statecraft" has some elements of being a basic tutorial on diplomacy and says nothing about current efforts to reorganize the State Department and USAID. It says nothing new about sanctions or economic cooperation, although it does emphasize the need for economic and trade partnerships.
The one more innovative set of “Priority Actions” comes under the heading of "Information Statecraft," and it too is long on goals and short on the “how” and the funding at a time major cuts are being discussed in State.
PRIORITIZE THE COMPETITION: We will improve our understanding of how adversaries gain informational and psychological advantages across all policies. The United States must empower a true public diplomacy capability to compete effectively in this arena.
DRIVE EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATIONS: We will craft and direct coherent communications campaigns to advance American influence and counter challenges from the ideological threats that emanate from radical Islamist groups and competitor nations. These campaigns will adhere to American values and expose adversary propaganda and disinformation.
ACTIVATE LOCAL NETWORKS: Local voices are most compelling and effective in ideological competitions. We must amplify credible voices and partner with them to advance alternatives to violent and hateful messages. Since media and Internet companies are the platforms through which messages are transported, the private sector should lend its creativity and resources to promoting the values that inspire and grow a community of civilized groups and individuals.
SHARE RESPONSIBILITY: The United States will urge states where radicalism thrives to take greater responsibility for countering violent messaging and promoting tolerant and pluralistic worldviews.
UPGRADE TAILOR, AND INNOVATE: We will reexamine legacy delivery platforms for communicating U.S. messages overseas. We must consider more cost-effective and efficient ways to deliver and evaluate content consistent with U.S. national security interests.
The section on "Information Statecraft" again recognizes that, "America’s competitors weaponize information to attack the values and institutions that underpin free societies, while shielding themselves from outside information. They exploit marketing techniques to target individuals based upon their activities, interests, opinions, and values. They disseminate misinformation and propaganda,” but it again gives no specifics on how the U.S. will actually meet this challenge.
If one looks more broadly at the entire section on "Preserve Peace Through Strength," the NSS takes eleven pages to set good goals, but they do not even begin to hint at a strategy. There are no specifics, no plans, no summary indications of costs and resource, and no timeframes for action. Ironically, about the only specific in the entire new NSS that comes clear to summarizing an actual call for tangible new action comes early in the document (p.4)—and it consists of a simple statement that a "layered missile defense system will defend our homeland from missile attack."
It is this lack of an actual strategy—not taking issue with the President's choice of words—that should be the key source of criticisms of what is in many ways a good summary of America's challenges and goals. To quote Gertrude Stein, America's primary critical thinker about military strategy, "there is no there there."
Like the President's campaign goals for increasing U.S. military forces and calls for further increases in defense spending, it is not enough to set broad goals when they are not tied to specific missions and specific plans. This is especially true when the U.S. is still bound by the Budget Control Act, may soon pass a tax bill that will put more strain on the federal budget, and the President has only a guarantee of three more years in office.
In fairness, President Bush and President Obama did no better, and most previous NSS documents over the years have been striking largely for their lack of detail, total decoupling from the coming Department of Defense and State Department budget documents, and any tangible implementation in terms of new U.S. action. But, a meaningful National Security Strategy must be far more specific, and give a far clearer lead to the executive branch and the military, the Congress, the American people, and our allies. Having the right goals and good intentions is meaningless unless they produce results.
Pillar IV: Advance American Influence
The section on Pillar IV, “Advance American Influence," makes two points clear about the new National Security Strategy where it has received a great deal of unfair criticism. It remains committed to alliances and strategic partners, and the fact that "We are not going to impose our values on others" does not mean that the U.S. will not advance those values. Its introductory paragraphs make this very clear:
Around the world, nations and individuals admire what America stands for. We treat people equally and value and uphold the rule of law. We have a democratic system that allows the best ideas to flourish. We know how to grow economies so that individuals can achieve prosperity. These qualities have made America the richest country on earth—rich in culture, talent, opportunities, and material wealth.
The United States offers partnership to those who share our aspirations for freedom and prosperity...We are not going to impose our values on others. Our alliances, partnerships, and coalitions are built on free will and shared interests. When the United States partners with other states, we develop policies that enable us to achieve our goals while our partners achieve theirs.
Allies and partners are a great strength of the United States. They add directly to U.S. political, economic, military, intelligence, and other capabilities. Together, the United States and our allies and partners represent well over half of the global GDP. None of our adversaries have comparable coalitions.
We encourage those who want to join our community of like-minded democratic states and improve the condition of their peoples. By modernizing U.S. instruments of diplomacy and development, we will catalyze conditions to help them achieve that goal. These aspiring partners include states that are fragile, recovering from conflict, and seeking a path forward to sustainable security and economic growth. Stable, prosperous, and friendly states enhance American security and boost U.S. economic opportunities.
We will continue to champion American values and offer encouragement to those struggling for human dignity in their societies. There can be no moral equivalency between nations that uphold the rule of law, empower women, and respect individual rights and those that brutalize and suppress their people. Through our words and deeds, America demonstrates a positive alternative to political and religious despotism.
If there is a major shift in policy, it is where the subsection on "Encourage" Aspiring Partners notes that,
Today, the United states must compete for positive relations around the world...The United States will promote a development model that partners with countries that want progress, consistent with their culture, based on free market principles, fair and reciprocal trade, private sector activity, and rule of law. The United States will shift away from a reliance on assistance based on grants to approaches that attract private capital and catalyze private sector activities We will emphasize reforms that unlock the economic potential of citizens, such as the promotion of formal proper_ rights, entrepreneurial reforms, and infrastructure improvements—projects that help people earn their livelihood and have the added benefit of helping U.S. businesses. By mobilizing both public and private resources, the United States can help maximize returns and outcomes and reduce the burden on U.S. Government resources
This raises the whole issue of "nation building" without using the term, but it also recognizes the reality that the grant aid efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq accomplished relatively little, and that outside direct aid cannot help a nation that will not help itself.
The subsection on "Achieve Better Outcomes in Multilateral Forums" does emphasize serving U.S. interests, but so did guidance from the Bush and Obama Administrations. It is also important to note that there is another major subsection on "Champion American Values" that emphasizes action to support fundamental individual liberties," "support the dignity of individuals," "empower women and youth," “protect religious freedom and religious minorities," and "reduce human suffering."
A limited amount of conservative phrasing does not disguise traditional and centrist goals and values. If there is any legitimate criticism of the broad content of this section, it is that it sets good goals, but again at best only hints at a strategy. There are no specifics, no broad plans, no summary indications of costs and resource, and no timeframes for action.
The Strategy in a Regional Context
The section on the final pillar again makes it clear that "America First" is a call for joint international action with America's allies and strategic partners throughout the world—not a retreat from the world or form of isolationism. It again singles out China and Russia as source of competition, and Iran and North Korea as threats, and calls for the United States to play a major international role:
The United States must marshal the will and capabilities to compete and prevent unfavorable shifts in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East. Sustaining favorable balances of power will require a strong commitment and close cooperation with allies and partners because allies and partners magnify U.S. power and extend U.S. influence. They share our interests and responsibility for resisting authoritarian trends, contesting radical ideologies, and deterring aggression.
In other regions of the world, instability and weak governance threaten U.S. interests. Some governments are unable to maintain security and meet the basic needs of their people, making their country and citizens vulnerable to predators. Terrorists and criminals thrive where governments are weak, corruption is rampant, and faith in government institutions is low. Strategic competitors often exploit rather than discourage corruption and state weakness to extract resources and exploit their populations...Regions afflicted by instability and weak governments also offer opportunities to improve security, promote prosperity, and restore hope
The subsection on the Indo-Pacific could have been written by the Obama Administration, although it updates its assessment of China and the threat from North Korea. Like the previous Administration, it emphasizes U.S. ties to Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and India. It also notes that, "In Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Thailand remain important allies and markets for Americans. Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are growing security and economic partners of the United States. The Association of, Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) remain centerpieces of the Indo-Pacific’s regional architecture and platforms, for promoting an order based on freedom."
Its “Priority Actions” call for the U.S. to "redouble our commitment to established alliances and partnerships," and for to the U.S. to, "maintain a forward military presence capable of deterring and, if necessary, defeating any adversary. We will strengthen our long-standing military relationships and encourage the development of a strong defense network with our allies and partners." In a rare moment of specificity, it also states that the U.S. will maintain strong ties to Taiwan and "expand defense cooperation with India, a Major Defense Partner of the United States.”
The subsection on Europe clearly recognizes the emerging challenge from Russia,
Russia is using subversive measures to weaken the credibility of America’s commitment to Europe, undermine transatlantic unity, and weaken European institutions and governments. With its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, Russia demonstrated its willingness to violate the sovereignty of states in the region. Russia continues to intimidate its neighbors with threatening behavior, such as nuclear posturing and the forward deployment of offensive capabilities.
It also makes a clear commitment to NATO, and does so with an unusual amount of specifics, including an emphasis on burden sharing,
The United States remains firmly committed to our European allies and partners. The NATO alliance of free and sovereign, states is one of our great advantages over our competitors, and the United States remains committed to Article V of the Washington Treaty...European allies and partners increase our strategic reach and provide access to forward basing and overflight rights for global operations. Together we confront shared threats. European nations are contributing thousands of troops to help fight jihadist terrorists in Afghanistan, stabilize Iraq, and fight terrorist organizations across Africa and the greater Middle East.
The United States will deepen collaboration with our European allies and partners to confront forces threatening to undermine our common values, security interests, and shared vision. The United States and Europe will work together to counter Russian subversion and aggression, and the threats posed by North Korea and Iran.
... The United States will work with the European Union, and bilaterally with the United Kingdom and other states, to ensure fair and reciprocal, trade practices and eliminate barriers to growth. We will encourage European foreign direct investment in the United States to create jobs.
The United States fulfills, our defense responsibilities and expects others, to do the same. We expect our European allies, to increase defense spending to 2 percent of gross, domestic product by 2024, with 20 percent of this spending devoted to increasing military capabilities.
On NATO’s eastern flank we will continue to strengthen deterrence and defense, and catalyze frontline allies and partners’ efforts to better defend themselves. We will work with NATO to improve its integrated air and missile defense capabilities to counter existing and projected ballistic and cruise missile threats, particularly from Iran. We will increase counterterrorism, and cybersecurity cooperation.
The subsection on the Middle East places an expected emphasis on Iranian influence and the Jihadist threat. It takes a very hard line on Iran, but does not criticize the JCPOA nuclear agreement.
Some goals are vague or poorly explained. The subsection mentions the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but also states that, "Israel is not the cause of the region’s problems. States have increasingly found common interests with Israel in confronting common threats." It makes a rather strange mention of being "Committed to a strong and integrated Gulf Cooperation Council" at a time this is scarcely the real world state of the GCC. It also talks about strengthening the U.S. strategic partnership with Iraq and creating a peace settlement in Syria without any details.
At the same time, it does call for reforms to address "the core inequities that Jihadists exploit," and support of reforms in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It too pledges that the U.S. will,
...retain the necessary American military presence in the region to protect the United States and our allies from terrorist attacks and preserve a favorable regional balance of power. We will assist regional partners in strengthening their institutions and capabilities, including in law enforcement, to conduct counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts. We will help partners procure interoperable missile defense and other capabilities to better defend against active missile threats. We will work with partners to neutralize Iran’s malign activities in the region.
The subsection on South and Central Asia makes it clear that the United States will partner with the Afghan government and security forces in their fight against the Taliban, al-Qa’ida, ISIS, and other terrorists. We will bolster the fighting strength of the Afghan security forces, to convince the Taliban that they cannot win on the battlefield and to set the conditions for diplomatic efforts to achieve enduring peace. We will insist that Pakistan take decisive action against militant and terrorist groups operating from its soil. We will work with the Central Asian states to guarantee access to the region to support our counterterrorism efforts." It also emphasizes supporting civil reform in Afghanistan and ties aid to Pakistan to its performance in counterterrorism.
The subsection on the Western Hemisphere makes only limited changes in policy. It emphasizes meeting the threat of drugs and transnational crime, dealing with regimes like that of Venezuela, countering Chinese and Russia influence, and improving trade agreements.
The subsection on Africa tracks in many ways with the evolving policies of the Obama Administration, but is more explicit in recognizing its rising level of instability and violence:
Many African states are battlegrounds for violent extremism and jihadist terrorists. ISIS, al-Qa’ida, and their affiliates operate on the continent and have increased the lethality of their attacks, expanded into new areas,
...We will encourage reform, working with promising nations to promote effective governance, improve the rule of law, and develop institutions accountable and responsive to citizens. We will continue to respond to humanitarian
needs while also working with committed governments and regional organizations to address the root causes of human suffering. If necessary, we are prepared to sanction government officials and institutions that prey on their citizens and commit atrocities. When there is no alternative, we will suspend aid rather than see it exploited by corrupt elites.
... We will continue to work with partners to improve the ability of their security services to counter terrorism, human trafficking, and the illegal trade in arms and natural resources. We will work with partners to defeat terrorist organizations and others who threaten U.S. citizens and the homeland.
The strategy raises an interesting challenge to the issue of nation building and dealing with the impact of war in states like Afghanistan and Iraq in saying that, "the United States will promote a development model that partners with countries that want progress consistent with their culture based on free market principles, fair and reciprocal trade, private sector activity, and rule of law. The United States will shift away from a reliance on assistance based on grants to approaches that attract private capital and catalyze private sector activity."
It firmly commits the United States to active participation in a wide range of international forums like the United Nations,
The United States must lead and engage in the multinational arrangements that shape many of the rules that affect U.S. interests and values. A competition for influence exists in these institutions. As we participate in them, we must protect American sovereignty and advance American interests and values.
Authoritarian actors have long recognized the power of multilateral bodies and have used them to advance their interests and limit the freedom of their own citizens...If the United States cedes leadership of these bodies to adversaries, opportunities to shape developments that are positive for the United States will be lost... Where existing institutions and rules need modernizing, the United States will lead to update them
And, it sets the right broad goals for shaping U.S. regional strategy,
The United States must tailor its approaches to different regions of the world to protect our national interests. We require integrated regional strategies that appreciate the nature and magnitude of threats, the intensity of competitions, and the promise of available opportunities, all in context of local political, economic, social, and historical realities.
Changes in a regional balance of power can have global consequences and threaten U.S. interests. Markets, raw materials, lines of communication, and human capital are located within, or move among, key regions of the world...
The United States must marshal the will and capabilities to compete and prevent unfavorable shifts in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East. Sustaining favorable balances of power will require a strong commitment and close cooperation with allies and partners because allies and partners magnify U.S. power and extend U.S. influence...
But once again, there are virtually no specifics in terms of plans for action.
National Security, But Where Is the Strategy?
In many ways, the new National Security Strategy is a reassuring and innovative effort, and it is striking that President Trump has issued one during his first year in office. President Obama did not, and only issued two in eight years in office. President George W. Bush did not, and only issued one. The new strategy also is no vaguer or lacking in specifics than almost all of its predecessors since the current legislation calling for an annual National Security Strategy was passed as part of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986.
In fairness, President Trump has tasked a whole range of more specific strategy studies, and these may provide the missing plans, timelines, and budget requirements in the future. But surely, the U.S. could have done more to reassure its strategic partners and explain our intentions, talked about continued U.S. military and national security commitments in more detailed terms, and highlighted specific areas where deterrence and containment are being strengthened or need to be. It could have talked more specifically about the future levels of U.S. forces and U.S. force plans and defense budgets. It could have provided the Congress with something far closer to plans for action.
A National Security Strategy is really only useful when it sets the stage for Presidential and Congressional action that focuses on tangible near-term actions. It should provide guidance for the coming budget and year, and show how a strategy that reflects the current realities of the world the U.S. lives in will evolve over the near-term—not set goals so broad or distant that they do not provide a mandate for action. The government functions largely by focusing on the current year and actions that affect the near term. Presidents have only four to eight years to act, and the House and Senate face time limits of their own.
It is not enough to set the right national security goals. Goals come easily. It is implementation that is hard, and from the practical viewpoint of governance, it is implementation that matters. In an unstable and threatening world, at a time when we cannot seem to manage our national budgets, and at a time when we face a growing deficit crisis driven by rising entitlement costs, we really need an actual strategy.
Note: The original legislative requirement passed in 1947. ( 50 U.S. Code § 3043 - Annual national security strategy report.)